Have you ever had a parser game idea that was too linear?

I’ve got a story idea for a parser game, that I was initially very enthused about. I was considering making it my first ever competition entry, during this year’s ParserComp. But the problem is, I seriously doubt it would go over well due to the extremely linear nature of the storyline. I would definitely add a few things to make it more “parsery”, but when it all comes down to it I’m having extreme difficulty coming up with ideas to add more freedom to the game. Or at the very least, generate the feeling of greater freedom in the game.

I sometimes think the story would be better as a Twine game or some such, but I’m kind of stuck on the idea of writing parsers. (As you can tell by my user name.) I seriously want to write the game, and probably will regardless. Writing it for my own satisfaction will be fulfilling enough, I think. Still, I might decide to share it and I was hoping for some advice on what to do when you want to make a game less linear without sacrificing too much of the integrity of the story concept. That’s probably a difficult thing to advise when I don’t want to give the story away. I feel a bit ridiculous putting forth the request. But if others have been in the same boat, advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

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Many of the top-rated parser games on IFDB have a linear storyline (or nearly linear), where you can only solve one puzzle at a time until you solve the last puzzle of the game and win.

If you have ideas for a linear series of puzzles that unlocks a linear storyline, you’re off to a good start. Turn it into a playable demo, get some testers to try it, and listen to their feedback.

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For what it’s worth, my sense is that most parser games are exceedingly linear when it comes to their narratives; the perception of nonlinearity comes from the ability to explore an environment and direct exploration (and puzzle-solving, if it’s a puzzle game) as the player desires rather than impact a storyline. So from your description I wouldn’t immediately see a problem, it’s more about creating the perception of freedom, as you say. The simplest approach there is to just break up the physical space and spread the different plot elements around so the player can interact with them “out of order”, even if each will get resolved in a specific, linear order.

If you share a little more details I’m sure folks can provide more suggestions, but again, nothing about what you’ve said makes me think “this can’t work in a parser game” – if anything, I think linearity can sometimes face a harsher reception on the choice-based side of things, since some players do expect that there’ll be branching.

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I totally agree with Dan and Mike!

Personally I get a very strong sense of agency in parser games just from being able to interact with the environment freely, even if only a small number of these interactions will actually make the plot progress.
I think that a thorough and thematic implementation of as many verbs as you find a use for would be a great way to add to the player’s experience without having to add branches to the story.

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I think Rameses is the most linear game I’ve tried. I don’t normally like linear games. I LOVED that one. It was cleverly done so the horizons felt huge - you could do so much! And then you actually come to trying to do it… and it really adds to the mood of the game.

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Thanks for the input everyone. It’s probably bad to play the comparison game, but I kept thinking of the game Honk! in last year’s IFComp that seemed to offer a lot of freedom, and I really liked it. What I have in mind will be far different. Then again, I guess One King to Loot them All was rather linear, but I still really liked that too.

Most of the games I’ve played, in truth, are fairly recent competition entries from IFComp or ParserComp, with the exception of a few highly recommended classics. I guess I didn’t have the depth of experience to realize that maybe the outlook wasn’t as dismal as I had hoped. I still think I need to come up with some extra ideas to spice things up if I decide to make it a competition release. But just knowing a little linearity isn’t considered a deal breaker is a load off my mind.

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I will also add you don’t have to have puzzles to make your linear parser game good and interesting.

This is the way.

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Since we’re talking in the abstract, it’s true that some story problems/challenges can be so big that you need to solve them before you start making a game, to know whether it’s doable. But the majority aren’t in that basket. The flexibility of the tools we have now means you can create on the fly, and change things quickly if need be. “Rapid prototyping” as they call it.

In my big WIP (year five of development) I’m constantly trying (and need) to ‘parser-ise’ story ideas I’ve theorised, but I have the most success by what you might call standing on the set. As soon as I make a room and put some things in it, and stand in it, they suggest in situ things for the PC to do that I hadn’t thought of in the abstract. I often change or throw away what I’d had planned.

Not everyone’s mind works this way, but standing on the set is the method that works for me, and has broadly overcome every ‘this game is too linear’ challenge I’ve had so far. It’s an easy method to try with the tools we have.

-Wade

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One of the greatest parser games ever has a linear plot and progression through the puzzles. It’s just that the world is so engaging, the exploration so compelling, that the linear path doesn’t detract from the feeling of freedom in the game-world at all.

@dfabulich made a puzzle dependency chart for Anchorhead in a response on this hint-thread: Anchorhead is too hard for me - Playing / Game Hints - The Interactive Fiction Community Forum (intfiction.org)

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When you play a parser game (or any interactive fiction, really), your objective is to solve the game. When you start, you don’t know how to solve the game. The enjoyment comes from finding how to solve it. Once it’s solved, the solution is linear, but the process you went through to find that solution is probably not linear.

I think the idea or concept behind most parser games is probably fairly linear. The secret to a good parser game is to make it interesting along the way as you try to find the solution. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Make sure your map is not linear. It should have lots of branches (like a tree) and loops (like a network). Also, try to avoid a long line of connected rooms in the same direction. Try to add twists and turns and bends along the way.

  • Try to add some barriers along the way. In other words, you can’t just explore the whole map without doing anything to get through those barriers or find an alternative way around them.

  • If your route goes from A to B to C to D, then make sure the player needs to backtrack from time to time (but preferably not a long way). In other words, they have to go from A to B to C, then back to B before they can progress to D.

  • Make sure there are challenges along the way. (Note that I used the word ‘challenges’, not ‘puzzles’.) A challenge may be as simple as finding an appropriate object to use somewhere or working out what to ask an NPC in order to gather some information that you’ll need.

  • Everyone that knows me knows that I like puzzles, but vary the style of puzzles. Have a good mix of logical puzzles and physical puzzles. The most common puzzles are lock-and-key puzzles where you need to find one object to use with a second object. In some cases you find the ‘key’ first, but you don’t know where to use it (or whether it’s even going to be useful). In other cases, you find the ‘lock’ first and deduce that you need something else to use it, but you’ll have to find that something else.

  • For every room, stop and think what sort of scenery and what sort of objects you would normally expect to find in there. Addition of these objects may suggest extra things to explore and possibly extra puzzles. When you start writing room descriptions, these may provide further inspiration on things to include.

  • Don’t be scared of using a few red herrings, but don’t go overboard. Part of the challenge of parser games is working out what is useful and what isn’t.

I could keep going, but I think you should get the idea by now. My point is that all parser games ultimately have a linear solution. It’s up to you to make it interesting and challenging to find that solution by introducing twists and turns along the way.

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I think that the linearity isn’t strictly linked to sequential puzzles.

let’s consider an extreme case of “linear” puzzlefest, that is, a chain of X escape rooms, one after the other, the search of the solution involves a detailed, and by definition rather non-linear, examining fiddling and nudging around the escape room.

Linearity, for me, lies in the narrative, that is, in the “fiction” part of IF; more the narration is like reading a book, more linear is the narrative.

Outside of the parser IF, the KN (Kinetic Novel) fits the bill of “linear fiction”.

Side point, I fear that I have wrote years ago, under the influence of alcohol, and for testing Inform 7’s handling of turn count, years the most linear parser "I"F ever wrote, the solution being

z.z.z.z.z.z.z.z.z.z (that is, waiting 10 turns)

and I even dared to release that “IF” as external contribuition to the orifice jam (no wonder, because was written while in a not precisely sober state…)

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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For my second parser game, I wanted to adapt a short story by Robert Sheckley (“Fishing Season”). The story itself is short and pretty linear, as the mystery reveals gradually and there are two main storylines that resolve in the end.

My design process was:

  1. Build the list of locations (seven, some of which were implemented with more than one room). Most of the locations are connected (two homes, a few streets, a school, some outdoors locations).

  2. Divide the story into scenes (there were 13). Each scene has some scripted events and there are actions that trigger the scene transitions (like the PC exiting a location after some dialogue has finished). Some scenes allow free movement, others lock the player into one location until the scripted events are done.

  3. Group the scenes into days (Friday to Sunday). The day is shown on Status bar, and the PC going to his room at the end of certain scenes advances the day.

  4. The end of the game requires some actions that the player can do at any time, so there’s an overarching puzzle element that spans the whole story, and counterbalances the linearity.

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Uh. That’s not universally true. I had completely the opposite experience with Anchorhead, and Dan’s post that you linked comes to the opposite conclusion as well, making the argument that Anchorhead’s linear plot and progression DOES significantly undermine the feeling of freedom:

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You’re right.

I read Dan’s post as mostly being about the frustration of a huge map that doesn’t signal the solvability of puzzles enough, rather than the overall sense of freedom of the player. He does (as do you, if I understand correctly), come to the conclusion that there’s a mismatch between the openness of the world and the linear (constricted?) path through the plot.

I loved Anchorhead for exactly this, and it shines through in the wording of my post. Ultimately though, I wanted to point to a well-respected parser-game that has a completely linear structure underneath the complex game-world. I thought Dan’s dependency chart illustrated this point very well.

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Agreed that most parser games with real narratives are essentially linear, and that puzzles and obfuscations are used to make it seem less linear.

I’ve written a few extremely linear parsers. Like, not much to do except a few actions to propel the story along. These might have been better served if I made them choice games (a format I don’t know how to use), but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an on-the-rails, very linear parser game. I think the biggest problem with them is that most parser players come prepared to do battle with the parser and solve puzzles, so it’s weird when that’s not there. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to use the parser format, though.

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Hi! Glad to hear you liked my game! Actually One King to Loot them All is almost completely linear since it was originally targeting the Single Choice Jam where only one choice in the entire game was permitted.

To limit player frustration I eliminated all standard verbs and used only a small set of verbs throughout the game. Only at a few places where it actually made sense to have some flexibility I allowed for some player freedom (that mechanic was broken in the initial release, so not everyone might have enjoyed that freedom).

I think this kind of thing probably only works out when there is a strong narrative. I customized nearly all error messages to fit the theme, and also added custom “action” messages for all player actions (including the UNDO action which contributed in no small part to the “success factors” of the game).

I am now working on a more “puzzly” game for next IFComp. But whether I can have a strong narrative remains to be seen. If players get more freedom, how does one ensure the story keeps moving forward?

A case in point: I considered to allow the player to walk back to a previous location in my One King game (properly gated, of course; once a player crosses a line of “no return” there would be no way back), but this would break the narrative flow of the game and probably expose it even more for what it is: a linear story.

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Thar’s why most sandbox-y games have thin narratives. Gating is essential if you want a story to unfold. The trick is to make the gating look organic, fit with the story, and be fun for the player to un-gate. Nothing to it!

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You mean something like this?

"The Forest of Eternal Night is blocking our path," Alcaz says.
> talk to Alcaz
"Can't you use a fireball and burn it down?" you ask.
"I would need something flammable as a source," Alcaz says.
> fart
Years of practice and eating loads of brown beans pay off as you let it rip.
Alcaz casts his Fireball spell and sets the Forest of Eternal Night aflame.

(I am trying to break the “workmanlike” spell Mike cast on me)

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So, intead of West, East, Map, Restart, you do Forward, Backward, Index, Cover? Aka Cover, TOC, Prev, Next. :open_book::wink:

Linear Fiction, indeed! Kinetic VN FTW!

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I think Anchorhead is an incredible accomplishment, and my complaints about it notwithstanding, any IF author should consider themselves proud to make a game that good.

As for the point of this thread, I could imagine someone complaining about Anchorhead that it’s “too linear,” but that’s not my complaint.

Anchorhead combined three factors that I claim don’t combine well together:

  1. Big, branchy map: You can explore anywhere at any time.
  2. Linear puzzle progression: You can only work on one puzzle at a time.
  3. No guidance: There’s no way to know where the current puzzle is; you just have to guess.

I think these three combine badly, but it’s fine to pick any two of these.

  • You can have a linear puzzle progression in a simple, linear map. No need to guide people toward the current puzzle, because it’s right there in front of you.

  • You can have a big, branchy map with a big, branchy puzzle-dependency chart. (That way, you can trust that if you’re facing a puzzle, you can probably solve it.)

  • You can have a linear puzzle progression in a big, branchy map, but then, I think you should provide the player clear hints about what to work on next. For Anchorhead, earlier in the linked thread, I suggested that the dream you have each night should tell you the primary objective for the following day, instead of containing random clues applicable only on later days.

    I decided to solve this problem on my own, by creating Invisiclues for Anchorhead.

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